At least 30 people died when the Sudanese army shelled a market in Omdurman during what residents of the country’s most populous city described as the worst week for civilian casualties since the outbreak of war in April.
Most of the victims in the incident at the Shaabi souk on Tuesday were children and women, according to witnesses. Medical sources said the shells were fired from the Karri military base, which the army controls, during fierce fighting with the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.
A vegetable seller who goes to the market on most days to buy his goods wholesale said people trying to steal produce were among the victims. Food prices have risen sharply in recent months and many people living in Omdurman and its sister cities of Khartoum and Bahri have run out of money.
“The majority of the victims were people who had come to loot the market,” the vegetable seller said. “The market has become very dangerous, especially in the afternoon. You can just get shelled and die.”
Another vegetable seller said that as of Thursday some of the victims’ bodies still lay uncovered, and that the bodies of children were covered only by empty boxes.
Like other major Sudanese cities, much of Omdurman has come to resemble a battlefield since clashes broke out between the regular army and the RSF on 15 April, in a violent escalation of a years-long power struggle between the two main factions of the country’s military regime.
Roads around the market have been occupied by army snipers this week after RSF fighters withdrew from positions they had held since the start of the conflict.
Last Saturday, 38 people were killed in Omdurman’s Dar es Salaam neighbourhood in one of the deadliest airstrikes of the war so far, which the RSF blamed on the military.
“It was early in the evening and we were sitting outside with friends when a fighter jet came over,” said Mohamed, a witness who lives in Dar es Salaam and did not want to give his full name. “We saw the light and heard the explosions. Other people’s houses and cars were burned.”
Mohamed said he knew of an entire family who were killed while sleeping on their rooftop. “The father worked selling and buying cattle, it’s just so sad,” he said.
The neighbourhood is mostly populated by members of the Rizagat tribe, to which Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the head of the RSF, and many members of his core force belong.
Mohamed said some of the relatives of the dead were members of the RSF. “They sometimes bring in their fighter vehicles [to the neighbourhood],” he said. “This might be the reason why it was targeted. Many families have now left the area.”
Rizigat families from across Omdurman have fled the city since Saturday’s strike. “We have to go,” said one woman who was setting out for While Nile state, south of the Khartoum tri-city area. “They [the army] killed so many of our relatives. We fear getting targeted by a missile inside our houses.”
In a third mass casualty incident this week, a family of nine died in an airstrike that hit a mosque where they lived in Bahri on Sunday. The father worked at the mosque as a prayer caller.
More than 3 million people have left the Khartoum area since the start of the war, according to the UN, equating to about 50% of the population. Those remaining are mostly unable to leave for health or financial reasons or because they hail from the volatile provinces of Kordofan or Darfur, where fighting has also been particularly fierce.
On Thursday, the UN said the bodies of dozens of people allegedly killed by the RSF had been uncovered in a mass grave in West Darfur. El Obeid, the capital of North Kordofan state, is now besieged by the RSF, and civilians there are struggling to access essentials.
The international criminal court is investigating a surge in hostilities in the Darfur region since mid-April, including reports of killings, rapes and crimes affecting children.
ICC prosecutors are “closely tracking reports of extrajudicial killings, burning of homes and markets, and looting, in Al Geneina, West Darfur, as well as the killing and displacement of civilians in North Darfur and other locations across Darfur,” the ICC said on Thursday.
The intensified fighting in Omdurman followed an announcement by a senior army figure last week that he wanted forces to “cleanse” the city of RSF fighters. Since the announcement, the army has deployed troops from morning until evening in various neighbourhoods in Omdurman for the first time since the start of the war. Intense gunfire has been heard on a daily basis, and civilians have been killed and injured by stray bullets.
On Tuesday a resident of the Ombdah neighbourhood, Abdllah Sulieman, was killed by a stray bullet while taking his brother to the only functioning hospital in the area. His brother, who had been injured in a similar incident the day before, survived.
Two other men were reportedly killed by sniper fire on their way to bury a neighbour who had died at home from kidney failure after being unable to access medical care.